One of the big unknowns linked to the war in Ukraine is the role that Russia will occupy in the post-Soviet region in the future. In Marlene Laruelle’s words, the war that ‘intended to restore Russian strength has instead left the country weaker’, bringing about the ‘end of the Post-Soviet order’. According to another heavyweight of Russian studies, Angela Stent, while Putin and his followers aimed at restoring the Russkiy mir—the greater Russian world, the war’s consequence is that their ‘imperial project is foundering’.
Last September, we dedicated a full dossier to this crucial question. Depending on the results on the battlefield, Russia’s image as a mighty military power and a security-provider for several of its neighbours can be either tarnished or reinforced. While Russia paints the war against Ukraine as an existential fight against Western neo-colonialism – winking to Global South countries that share anti-Western sentiments in light of their colonial past – the Kremlin’s ‘special military operation’ has actually reignited talks of Russian imperialism, both within Russia proper and vis-à-vis its neighbours.
We decided to delve into this question by zooming in on the South Caucasus. Indeed, this is possibly the area where dynamics of Russia’s faltering role after Ukraine are more visible. As Zaur Shiriyev remarks in this Dossier, before invading Ukraine Russia had been the sole mediator in the South Caucasus and acted like an arbiter regarding Azerbaijan-Armenian relations. But, more broadly, Russia was seen as serving as a ‘patron and protector’ for separatist regions within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan, being powerful enough to cynically ‘freeze’ frozen conflicts to preserve its regional hegemony.
Now, however, Moscow’s reduced engagement leaves room for other external actors to play a more active role. This is the case for the EU and the US, for instance. As Kevork Oskanian remarks in this Dossier, the high-level meetings between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev organised under EU auspices, as well as a re-engaged Biden administration, appear to have produced preliminary results. However, more should be done, not least considering the challenging context determined by the war in Ukraine. Iran also seeks to position itself as a mediator in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As Sara Bazoobandi notes, for a country under sanction and isolation that is currently going through major internal turmoil, disturbance of the country’s transit routes to Armenia is a significant threat. Turkey is another strategic actor, not only due to its alliance with Azerbaijan but also because of its own complex relationship with Armenia. In his article, Bayram Balci clearly explains the impact of this web of triangular relationships on the normalisation process currently underway between Yerevan and Ankara.
In our previous Dossier, several authors pointed out that, despite the deterioration of Moscow’s image as a capable and trustworthy partner, the majority of the states in the region still have a high degree of pragmatism in dealing with Moscow. In a way, there seems to be the conviction that Russia will keep being a key player in the region, even if the effects of its war against Ukraine will cause a reshaping of its role. As Tatia Dolidze maintains, even if Russia’s role is declining in the region, its power is here to stay.